I don’t normally pay too much heed to what happens at the Chelsea flower show in fact I have only ever been once. I was lucky enough on that occasion to get a free ticket form a friend. I was unlucky enough to have a ticket on one of the public days when I stood in crowds eight deep craning to catch a glimpse of the show gardens. The floral marquee was also a see of folks all desperate to buy the latest horticultural trendsetter though I was not immune and I have to confess to sharpening my elbows and diving in. I promised myself that henceforth I would stay away. Besides you get a much better view on TV!
This year I broke my resolution but for good reasons. I was invited to help out on the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group (RCMG) stand in the Floral Pavilion.
I got to go on Press Day when the public are not allowed in but journalists, TV crews, celebrities and the great and the good all mingle together to see and be seen!
Rhododendrons have made something of a comeback at Chelsea over the last few years with medal winning displays by Millais Nurseries. Our stand was devoted to celebrating the centenary of the founding of the RCMG and we were lucky enough to have decedents of the groups’s three original founders present.
The stand aimed to show the diversity of the genus Rhododendron from rare species supplied by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to modern hybrids and including a special feature of Rhododendron yakushimanum which came top of a recent poll of the 100 most popular rhododendrons.
One stand that really caught my eye was the display of Tree Peonies but on by Kelways Nurseries who specialise in this most decadent of flowers. Tree Peonies are not really trees but rather woody shrubs reaching six feet or so in height. They have been cultivated for thousands of years in China where the oldest and most beautiful cultivars are highly prized and can fetch enormous sums.
Although they bloom for an all too brief period at the start of summer they are worth having for the elegance and sophistication of their blooms. P. ‘Kokuryu-Nishiki’ caught my eye because of the wonderful bi-coloured blooms of burgundy and white though the cultivar ‘High Noon’ was also impressive with large lemon yellow flowers. ‘Shimane Sedai’ was a visit in gentle pink whilst ‘Black Pirate’ had wine red blooms that were quite enormous.
One of the most in testing things I saw was a display of Protea, the national flower of South Africa. These plants are famous for growing on Table Mountain and the display celebrated Kirstenbosh Botanical Gardens. Protea ‘Venus’ had huge cupped pink blooms whilst ‘King White’ was truly regal. There were many other delights to see including traditional Chelsea favourite including Alliums and Bearded Iris.
However one plant that did not feature heavily was the Lilac despite it being a showstopper at this time of year.
The poet Walt Whitman memorialised these most pungent of flowering shrubs in a poem composed about the death of his beloved President, Abraham Lincoln.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865)
The lilac thus became associated with the summer, rebirth, cyclical time, and above all, the pain of grief. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), a native of the distant Balkan Peninsula, has become a much beloved ornamental species in many British gardens and has spawned innumerable cultivars. It’s bright and fragrant blossoms mark the height of early summer activity, as trees leaf-out and animals rear their young.
Syringa vulgaris can become a bit straggly but if the old blooms are nipped of when they turn brown the bush will retain its shape. Often the plant blooms so prolifically that the stems are bent over by the weight of flower! If the common lilac has one deficiency it is that it can be a bit of an untidy shrub whereas Syringa x prestoniae has pink flowers that are carried much more elegantly, albeit in smaller bunches. For those with less space the diminutive S. macrophylla has pretty flowers on a smaller bush with rounded leaves.
The Chelsea flower show certainly provides glimpses of the beautiful, the aspirational and the downright outrageous in equal measure, which is what it is supposed to do. Our stand won a silver gilt medal which goes to show that all that glitters is not necessarily gold but the next best thing will do very nicely!